One day before the start of the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course, members of the thoroughbred racing and tourism industries gathered in the Spa City to share their thoughts on the racing season.
Marianne Barker, owner of Impressions and the Dark Horse, two gift shops in downtown Saratoga Springs, said the summer racing season is her “Christmas.”
“We look forward to this every year. I’m not sure our business would be the same without it,” said Barker.
Neither, likely, would the city itself. From late July through Labor Day, the Spa City’s population more than doubles.
Brian Straughter, owner of Turf Hotels, which operates five hotels in the Capital Region, said staff prepares for a busy season with few days off.
“One of our hotels was forecasting we’re going to be full 17 days in a row. You gotta hit it, you gotta get there, but that’s hard,” said Straughter.
Straughter, Barker and others spoke on a panel hosted by the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, just across the street from Saratoga Race Course. At sunup Friday, it’s a safe bet you’ll catch visitors lining up outside the gates of the famed flat track.
That means a lot to Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero. He contrasted Saratoga with the lack of excitement he sees at other tracks.
“Racing is good, the purses are great, but the crowd doesn’t show up much. I love when I come here and I see people at 5:30 hanging on the door trying to come into the racetrack,” said Cordero.
This summer season comes just weeks after Justify took the Belmont Stakes, winning the Triple Crown just three years after American Pharoah broke a 37-year drought.
It’s all but ruled out that Justify will race in the Travers, the meet’s top stakes race. But the Chamber in partnership with local marketing company Fingerpaint has launched a public campaign to help bring the horse back to New York.
Regardless, the Triple Crown winners have greatly increased interest in the sport, says thoroughbred owner Tom Bellhouse.
“After a Triple Crown, it’s been a tremendous. We always used to joke the most important day in New York racing was the Preakness,” chuckled Bellhouse. “Because, you know, whether we kept Belmont. But it really, it’s been a huge shot in the arm for people’s interest and we get a lot more inquiries after a Triple Crown.”
Attendance at Saratoga in the last few years has been up. NYRA, which operates Saratoga Race Course, along with Belmont and Aqueduct, has invested heavily in its tracks and digital access. This year marks the debut of a new premium seating area called The Stretch.
Attracting the next generation of fans has been a goal of racing regulators.
Trainer Tom Morley says that’s all great, but efforts to attract young fans need to continue.
“I constantly have emails and telephone requests from people from around the globe asking if there are positions to come and work for me, and God only knows why they would come and work for me. There’s a lot better people out there to go and work for,” joked Morley. “So the fact that they want to come and work for me is a huge indication that there are still people coming into the game. They still want to get involved. Probably, my biggest owner is under the age of 40. That is a huge indication of the fact that people want to invest, still want to enjoy, still want to be a part of it. But we’ve got to stay in front of the 8-ball.”
The 40-day meet begins Friday when the gates on Union Avenue open. Tuesdays are dark.